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'Demolition man'

Vuniwaqa Bola-Bari
Sunday, October 08, 2017

Someone once said that "all an ambitious man really needs is a supportive woman".

It was something a primary school dropout who is now known as the "Demolition Man" when he is on the rugby field needed to enable him to reach greater heights.

He was brought up in the village of Naivucini, in the highlands of Naitasiri, a province in Fiji where men and women are equal in every sense of the word, where they can both farm, gather firewood and even fish by the river as opposed to a woman brought up in a village in the Lau Group, where their women can hardly be seen farming or gathering root crops, as they view it to be the work of a man.

Born and bred in Naitasiri and being looked after by his late grandfather, Iliavi Veivuke. All this young boy dreamt about was to be a professional rugby player and to don the white jersey with the coconut tree emblem.

Levani Botia only went as far as Year 8 in his primary school education. He couldn't continue his school but he never gave up on his dream.

He would assist his grandfather in the plantation alongside his mum's youngest brother, Samu, and the more he sweated out in the scorching sun planting root crops to supply food for his family, the more he dreamt of becoming a national rep.

A cousin of his, Lepani Nabuliwaqa, donned the national jumper and became a sensational rugby player in the Fiji 7s team. This continued to make young Botia determined that nothing was impossible, even the lack of education he got would not stop him.

As time went by, Botia followed his cousin Nabuliwaqa's footsteps, managed to join the Fiji Corrections Service, played in the Wardens rugby team where he was sighted by none other than the maestro of 7s, Waisale Serevi.

But there was always something amiss in his life. He has two sisters, and a mother who had remarried, Botia needed a woman's support and love.

It seemed like a fairytale, but he found his love in 2011 when he was in the national 7s team, just selected to represent Fiji to the Pacific Games in New Caledonia.

However, his newly found love, Emele Veivuke, never knew Botia, not even as a rugby player.

From the hills of Naivucini, Naitasiri, Botia picked his flower from Yawe, Kadavu — an island in the southern Fiji.

In 2012, the couple got married and had their first-born son, things got a bit tough for Emele as she became a mother who looked after their first-born single handedly, nevertheless, her support for Botia never stopped.

"We accidentally met in 2011 while he was a prison officer got married and had our first born in 2012, and the challenges came where he spent less time with the family as they have their everyday training, camping and the tours," Emele said.

The adversaries of being married to a rugby player almost got the better of Emele, she would break down and cry, sometimes by herself, and she was on the verge of giving up.

But, what kept her sane was knowing that no marriage is a smooth sail, all have challenges and behind it all would be a reward for enduring trials.

"Sometimes I am at the point of giving up on our marriage because of the" rugby thing" but he always reminds me to bear with him a little longer because he knew rugby was his god-given talent and God himself will bless him with whatever it takes to be a professional player."

So, she continued to support her man, through thick and thin she weathered the storms of life with him, her love for him pushed her to continue and what was better than having a man who was loyal to her continue to be the dad to their son, Junior.

"Being married to a rugby player is a complex thing. There are both positives and negatives, they are complex human being to say the least. Their lives are dictated by rugby and they tend to live an existence of routine and ritual which is often difficult to understand or accept.

"They require a lot of support and encouragement from their wife," Emele added.

Her support proved to be the strong foundation of his rugby career and for their family, as two years after their marriage, in February 2014 Botia received a call from former Fiji 7s rep Sireli Bobo.

"A club in France wanted him for a three months contract."

Three months, the couple spoke at length about this opportunity, being the wife, she knew she had to look after their son and be the mum and dad to him while Botia is away; and she knew all her husband ever wanted was to be able to support his family through his rugby talent.

Like many families that break because of the distance, they knew it was going to be a tough call, and all they needed was to stay true to each other.

Emele allowed Lepani to go, trusting him and wanting to be that woman that allowed him to achieve his dreams.

Dreams that started in Naivucini, nurtured in their plantation as he toiled the land and a dream she knew only her support would help turn the three months to years.

"Millions of thoughts crossed our minds but I had to let him go so that he can fulfil his dreams (overseas contract). If we have trust and loyal to each other, everything will fall into place and always have God as the captain of your family," Emele continued.

Today, Lepani, a utility player, who can man the flanks upfront or at the backline or even stand at centre is creating a name for himself in the Top 14 competition in France playing for La Rochelle.

He is the same young man from Naivucini whose video was circulated widely when former All Blacks Ma'a Nonu couldn't stop him in one of his club games.

With three children, his family now enjoys what France has on offer, thanks to the support of his wife, who knew that there is always a silver lining in every grey cloud and he has advised other women to give the support needed by their man to allow them to grow and achieve their goals in life. Unlike professional rugby, Botia knew that dedication does not have an off-season and that dreams don't become reality through magic, it takes sweat, determination and hard work.

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